Yes, today, again! At this rate we'll be back into summer sometime after midnight. Snowblowers at Lowes. Newburgh, NY. Around one, Saturday afternoon. August 31, 2013.
Yes, today, again! At this rate we'll be back into summer sometime after midnight. Snowblowers at Lowes. Newburgh, NY. Around one, Saturday afternoon. August 31, 2013.
And Honors 340 Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons with Professors Steve Kuusisto and Lance Mannion is underway.
Watch the video of Christopher Hitchens talking about The Ten Commandments again and read his essay "How to be a public intellectual". (The links are right here on Digital Commoners. Btw, a few of you still haven't joined us on Facebook. Please sign up today). Then think about what Professor Kuusisto said about what makes a public intellectual, what their role is, and what it means to be a contrarian, that person who's always asking why? Why, you ask? Wiseguys. Or Whys-guys. I'll tell you why. In your first post you're to write a bit about how you can play the role of public intellectual on your blog. What issues would you like to explore? What dogmas or doctrines in your field do you think need questioning? If there were powers-that-be you could talk to and ask "Why?" who would they be and what whys would you ask? In a sense that's what you're doing with your blog. Remember Professor Kuusisto's anecdote about being called by the Congresswoman whose committee's work he criticized on his blog. You're reaching out into the cloud and you never know who's waiting to reach back.
Think about the classes you have taken outside your major/minor/concentration. Was there one that gave you insight or knowledge or a skill that you could apply to your major, that, in other words, helped make you a better student in your chosen field? How so? It doesn't have to been the course itself. It might have been one thing you studied in the class or something you read; it might have been the professor or teacher or something they said; it might have been one or more of your classmates and things they said. And it doesn't have to be a course you took in college. It may have been one you took in high school.
Both assignments are due via email by noon on Monday, September 2. Posts should be sent as Word attachments. Each one must be at least 250 words.
Let us know right away if you have any questions.
Assignment One is kind of specific to the class, but feel free to do Assignment Two, right here in the comments or on your own blog.
Don’t worry about grades. Everybody gets an A for effort and participation.
As much fun as I have on Twitter, as much use as I make of Facebook, as grateful as I am for all the rewards, pleasures, and friendships I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy as a blogger, and as excited as I am to be teaching a course this fall that might as well be called The Romance and Glory of a Life Lived Virtually, it’s really the case that as a writer whose medium happens to be a blog, I’m really an enemy of social media and everything blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, reddit and all the rest stand for.
The effect---in fact the purpose---of social media is to keep people glued to their computer screens.
My intention is to drive you away from your keyboards at least as far away as your couch and maybe only to another screen, the small one that’s your television, the large one at the multiplex, but preferably out the door and into the great wide analog world beyond.
The message of almost all my posts is the same. Get offline and do something real.
Read this book. See this movie. Watch this show. Go to this play. Take a walk. Take a drive. Notice this bird, that tree, those flowers. Visit this museum, that gallery. Head on down to the library. Go out to the garage and fix something. Go to the hardware store to get that tool or that part you didn’t know you needed until you started to fix whatever it is you decided to try to fix because if that incompetent Mannion can do it, how hard can it be? Go out for a cup of coffee, pay attention to the person pouring it for you. Sit out on the porch tonight and listen. To the geese down on the river. To the peepers in the trees. To the children laughing somewhere out there in the shadows. Have some pie.
There’s a lot to be wary of and a lot to criticize about a life lived too much in the cloud, as Aristophanes noted two and a half thousand years before there was an internet. But I’m not truly an enemy of the online life in the main, or social media in particular. I call myself that to describe an effect of my interests as a writer not as a purpose born of philosophical or moral principle.
And here I am, on the first day of class, preparing my introductory lecture for a course whose main object is to help students prepare to live their professional and intellectual lives at least partially online.
If that’s not enough irony for you, try this.
I’m not even going to be there.
One-eyed blogging I’m a whiz at. One-eyed driving? Probably not a good idea. So I’m staying put this week and sending my virtual self up to Syracuse to sub.
I’m Skyping in.
Boy, I love the 21st Century!
So, at least for today, I’m doing what I usually try not to do. Forcing people to look at a computer screen.
Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum as the best Lex Luthor ever. Unfortunately, Rosenbaum won’t be playing Lex in the announced sequel to Man of Steel, Superman vs. Batman.
Nope. Zack Snyder’s still going to be directing so I don’t think it much matters who plays Batman any more than it mattered who played Superman in Man of Steel. (For the record, I thought Henry Cavill made a good Superman in the few moments in which he was allowed to be Superman and not just an image to manipulate along with the rest of the CGI disaster effects.) I think it’s potentially interesting that we’re going to get a Batman who is significantly older and more experienced at the superhero business than Superman and Affleck fan Oliver Mannion’s hoping it means that we’re going to get a Batman who’s a bit of smartass and also, in a twist, a Batman who is of a sunnier disposition than Superman and a Bruce Wayne who is having a good time being a billionaire playboy vs an overly earnest and serious-minded Clark Kent. The chances of that increase if it’s true that Christopher Nolan’s disassociating himself with the project.
What’s cool, though, is the idea of Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor. Of course, I originally thought Michael Shannon as Zod would be cool too. And he was. Just not as cool as he would have been if almost anybody but Snyder had been directing.
Totally uncool is the idea of Matt Damon as Aquaman. The idea of anyone as Aquaman is uncool. Aquaman is the least necessary member of the Justice League.
But as cool as I expect Cranston to be, you know who I’d really like to see playing Lex.
Well, yeah, Michael Rosenbaum. Of course. The best Lex ever. But if not him, then this guy. This f---ing guy.
The blonde's famous peach blueberry pie, fresh out of the oven. The last one she made sold for $100 at a charity auction. This one's not for sale, worthy cause or no worthy cause, not even for a hundred bucks. We're eating it now. The kitchen at the Mannionville Ranch. Saturday night. August 24, 2013.
One-eyed blogging I'm a whiz at. One-eyed reading's trickier. I haven't been able to go back through my Elmore Leonard novels to find the passages I need to write the kind of tribute post I'd like to write. Fortunately, our old pal Nancy Nall, an even more devoted Leonard fan, has already written the kind of post I'd like to write:
Check it out. One of the best things, no link to Leonard's 10 Rules, on purpose. Nance is right. If you want to learn how to write like Leonard, read his books.
Nance is also right. Out of Sight is the best movie adaptation of any of his crime novels.
Nobody I've seen has mentioned Hombre, though, as the best adaptation of one of his Westerns.
And for the record, I'm the English professor friend of Nance's who says that "when the historians of the future want to know how we lived, the details of our daily lives, they’ll turn to the genre novelists to tell us." I stand by that thought.
I thought shingles were supposed to hurt.
My back and hip are still giving me the yips, but I’ve been doing my exercises and trying to keep moving. Some days are better than others and Monday was one of those better days. So I decided to help Young Ken with some yard work. This was mostly a matter of me feeding Ken the cord as he moved along with the hedge trimmer and dragging the cuttings out to the curb for bagging later by Ken and Oliver. Tuesday morning I woke up with a strange bumpy rash on my forehead.
Poison ivy? I thought. Poison oak? Poison sumac? I assumed I must have touched something like that in the yard. I slathered on the calamine lotion and didn’t worry about it.
Wednesday afternoon my right eyelid puffed up.
By yesterday morning my eye was swollen shut.
“I’d like to see the other guy,” said the cashier at the supermarket.
“I don’t think this is poison ivy,” I said to the blonde.
Last night she drove me up to see the doctor.
Who sent me to the emergency room.
The good news is the doctors there found no ophthalmic dendrites.
That means that the herpes zoster hadn’t infected my eye. Yet. It could still happen. That’s why my doctor sent me to the emergency room where they confirmed his diagnosis.
“Shingles!” I yelped. “Good gravy, man,” I said to the physician’s assistant examining me, or words to that effect. “Am I that old?”
Well, yes I am. But not that that old.
Shingles aren’t just an old person’s affliction.
They can pop out on you at any age after you’ve had chicken pox when your immune system is weakened. Old age will do that to you. But so will other things, including stress.
“Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”
Pop Mannion refused to believe I had shingles when I called the old homestead later to tell the folks that, good news, no poison ivy.
Everyone Pop knows who’s had shingles hurts like hell. And the hurt continues for months. Not only didn’t I hurt, but the big purple pill they gave me in the ER was already at work. By they time we got out to the car the swelling had gone down and my eye was half-open.
Another thing I learned about shingles. The pain most people who get them suffer is usually from a secondary infection and not from the shingles themselves. And that infection---which, according the flyer the nurse gave us as we were checking out, is properly called post-herpetic neuralgia. Aren’t you glad you read this blog? You learn stuff!---occurs because most people don’t realize they have shingles and get treated right away. The shingles appear on their backs and don’t get noticed until they start to hurt, which means until an infection is already underway. If you get treated within the first 72 hours you can head off the infection. I was lucky. Having your eye swell shut is hard to ignore.
The takeaway: If you had chicken pox, watch your back!
And here’s something else. Another reason most people Pop knows who’ve had shingles develop post-herpetic neuralgia is they are that old.
I could still develop an infection. Those ophthalmic dendrites might yet appear. “An infection of the cornea…can be very serious and lead to blindness,” the flyer informs me. So I’m supposed to see the ophthalmologist today. An eye patch is a possibility. Probably won’t look as cool as I’m imagining it. Anyway, I’ll update.
My eye’s closed again this morning. I’d better get the prescription filled as soon as the drug store opens. The other good news, though, is that I can blog with one-eye, as I’m proving here.
Aren’t you impressed?
So…that’s the medical news from Mannionville as of Friday, August 23. I probably shouldn’t post this. Every time something happens to me to make me feel sorry for myself, something worse happens to somebody I know.
By the way, the folks at the Vassar Brothers Medical Center ER are very nice. But emergency rooms are full of strange and disconcerting electronic sounds, which I probably only noticed because there weren’t any sounds of human suffering drowning them out.
“Quiet here tonight,” I said to one of the nurses, a young woman in a purple print smock and matching purple pants who for some odd reason wouldn’t enter the examination room. She stood in the doorway eaning on the jamb with her hands folded at her waist and questioned me from there.
“Very,” she said, sounding relieved.
“Is that because it’s a weeknight?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It’s because we’re past the full moon.”
Havens died back in April. This happened this past Sunday.
From Monday’s Times Herald-Record:
Richie Havens returned to Woodstock Sunday to make it his final resting place.
The music legend died in April at age 72. His ashes were scattered from a plane as it flew over the field where he galvanized a crowd of 450,000 at the Woodstock festival almost exactly 44 years ago — on Aug. 15, 1969. The site is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, where Havens also performed.
His family explained it was their decision to honor him this way. About 30 family members attended the event, which drew more than a thousand fans, as well as friends, including stars from the music and film industries.
"I feel he was most happy on this stage (Woodstock) out of all the places he performed in his life, so we felt this is the place he wanted to be forever," said his daughter, Dhalia Havens of Beacon.
She said the family made it a public event because her gentle, soft-spoken father felt he owed everything to his fans. He was always happy to sign autographs and always willing to pull out his guitar and play in response to a song request from a fan — even when he just stopped by to visit the festival site.
Read all of Pauline Liu’s story, Richie Havens, Woodstock’s first act, returns for finale, at the Times Herald-Record.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad." Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.
His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.
The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.
When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.
The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."
He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.
I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.
So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.
This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.
You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.
But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.
Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.
“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”
His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.
Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.
And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.
“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.
Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!
That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.
The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"
In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.
The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.
This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.
Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is. Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.
In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.
We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.
It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.
I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.
Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.
But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.
Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.
Drama being a relative term.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.
Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them
It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.
But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all. It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character. It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.
The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.
Keep in mind that it is funny. And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.
So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.
West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.
But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.
The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.
Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.
Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people. She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.
Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness. But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?
As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.
This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.
It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.
I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.
In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:
First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.
I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”
In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.
In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.
Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.
I once asked Pop Mannion, a Dodger fan since he was a kid, his affections and loyalty having gone West wit' dem Bums to L.A., if he remembered if it took fans a while to warm up to Jackie Robinson.
Pop, who was fifteen in 1947, said he didn't know how it was in Brooklyn---judging by the cheers of the crowds on the radio, he'd guess not long---but what he remembers is that among Dodger fans he knew in his hometown, Troy, New York, where they were outnumbered and beleaguered by Yankee fans with more to brag about and root for, there was an excitement of a kind they weren't used to. Robinson was helping the Dodgers do something they hadn't done a lot of in their history.
As Pop recalls it, because of that, long-suffering fans felt about Robinson the way Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher says he does in the movie 42. They didn't care if he was black, white, or zebra-striped. As long as he helped take the Dodgers to the World Series, he was their guy.
And it wasn't as though Robinson's arrival was a surprise. Fans had followed his progress with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. They saw him coming and couldn't wait for him to get there.
That anticipation and excitement aren't shown or felt in 42.
For all we see of Ebbets Field on game days, the Dodgers might have spent the whole of the Forty-seven season on the road, playing only before the most hostile crowds.
There are some other things missing I'd hoped to see.
A flashback to the young Branch Rickey as a college baseball coach comforting one of his players who'd been humiliated in public because he was black.
A scene in Montreal of Robinson chased down a street by a crowd of white people Robinson assumed were after him for the same reason a crowd of whites might have come after him in the U.S. but who turned out to be clamoring for his autograph.
42 - The Jackie Robinson Story is an excellent biopic, getting at essential truths of the true story it's based on without too much embellishment and while avoiding sentimentality and underplaying the moments that are too good to be true. It doesn't take too much for granted but resists overburdening itself with exposition. It's hokey in spots, contrived in others. You don't come away thinking, If that's not the way it happened, it's the way it should have happened. More like, if it didn't happen exactly like that, it's close enough.
Though I missed those things I said are missing, their absence don't make it a lesser movie. It makes it a weaker baseball movie. The rhythm of that pennant-winning season isn't part of the rhythm of the film. We get to see individual plays and at bats but get no sense of whole games being played. And we don't really get to see and appreciate Robinson as a baseball player. It's as if we're meant to take his greatness as a player for granted and not think about how the game was his passion and profession.
We don't see him playing to win.
We see him playing to show them.
Every time he steps up to the plate, whenever he's in the field or on base, it's a confrontation, a showdown between Jackie Robinson and racism.
And there's some truth in that. Every moment on the field was a moment when he might have failed.
But there'd have been as much truth and more fun in it, if we'd seen him taking an extra base now and then just because he saw the chance and not to prove a point.
I understand , though, why some of what I was rooting to see was left out. Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't want to give white audiences an excuse to think that if they'd been alive and in the stands back then they'd have automatically rooted for Robinson or to say, If he had that much support from white fans, and most of his teammates liked him, and lots of players on opposing teams accepted him, how bad could it have really have been for him?
(Think of Republicans, who did not vote for him, insisting racism must be a thing of the past because we have a black President, as if Barack Obama was elected and re-elected unanimously.)
But 42 doesn't dwell on showing crowds of black fans coming out to cheer for Robinson either.
This is thematic. 42 emphasizes a possibly unappreciated aspect of his story, how alone he was.
It didn't matter how many people, black, white, or zebra-striped were rooting for him. They couldn't go out on the field and play for him. They couldn't be him in confrontations with racist hotel managers, airline ticket agents, local cops, waiters, opposing teams' players and managers, members of his own team, umpires. They could not hold his temper for him. They could not swallow his pride. Everything, everything!, depended on Robinson's success on the field and his behavior in public. Which is to say everything depended on what he could only do by himself.
He had to be better than good for his own sake, for his family's sake, for his teammates', for the sake of all the black ballplayers hoping to make it to the majors behind him, for the Brooklyn fans, for everybody who showed faith in him, for all black Americans, for all Americans, black, white, and zebra-striped, for that matter. (Another theme of 42 is that while Robinson's struggles were inspiring they were also redemptive for many people.) That's a lot of people to be carrying on your back when you're reaching far to your right for a hard-hit ground ball or taking a long lead as you're getting ready to steal a base.
As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is heart-breaking in conveying that sense of aloneness and the what must have often felt unbearable loneliness that would have gone with it. I have some vague memories from my kidhood of the white-haired Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson became, but I only know him as a player from film clips so I can't say with any certainty how close Boseman comes to capturing the real man. Rachel Robinson seems impressed enough. But Boseman isn't built like Robinson---Robinson looked and ran like what he was, a former star running back at UCLA---so he can't quite match that sense of dangerous abandon on the basepaths. Imagine what it was like to be a shortstop of the time, who tended to be puny and anemic, and looking up to take the throw from the second baseman on what is now not going to be a routine 4-6-3 double play seeing Robinson coming at you as though you are all that stands between him and a touchdown. Boseman doesn't fly, he sprints like an athletic actor who might have run track in high school.
Robinson's voice was high and piercing and he spoke fast with the volume turned up. Boseman speaks low and slow. No one would describe his Robinson as the real Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe once described him in an argument as not just wrong but " loud wrong." And the thoughtful look in his eyes is that of someone who sees obstacles ahead as problems he's quietly worrying his way toward solving, while the brilliant glint in Robinson's eyes was that of a man who sees obstacles as challenges to be met head on, at top speed, and at full force. And if, as the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said of him, Robinson burned with a dark fire, Boseman smolders.
But impersonation isn't required. Boseman plays Robinson as what he was in essence, a proud and talented man called upon to be two things he would rather not have had to be, a hero and a saint, and one thing he was but only more so, a great ballplayer. Boseman captures the pressure and the frustration and the strength, but he also conveys the natural human fragility. He's strong enough that we believe he'll stand up to it all, but we can see how he might break.
Boseman also shows us something else important about Robinson, that he was a man deeply in love with his wife. In showing that, though, he gets a lot of help from Nicole Beharie.
42 is as much a story of a happy marriage as it is a baseball tale and a history lesson.
As Rachel Robinson, Beharie gives what I hope will be a star-making performance. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s got a strong will of her own, every bit a match for her husband. They’re equal partners and quietly passionate lovers. Together they make monogamy look very, very sexy.
As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford might surprise a lot of people. His performance might even strike them as a revelation. But when you think about it, Ford has been playing character roles all career long. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are not typical action-adventure heroes. There's a fundamental insecurity Ford gives both, an almost neurotic self-doubt behind Han's bravado and Indy's guilt that mark them as thinking men---"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."---and they are articulate. They know what they're saying. They're self-aware. Ford is always playing smart. This time out, he can really let the smartness show.
And it's not the case that it's time for him to play the grumpy old coot or wise elder. It happens that this character is in his sixties. But don't be fooled by the glasses and the dentures and the wig. They make him look like Branch Rickey. But he's still recognizably playing a Harrison Ford specialty. His Rickey is roguish and conniving, a conman and a liar in a good cause when the situation calls for it. Boseman gives 42 its heart. Ford gives it a sense of fun.
(Just for kicks, take a look at this picture of the real Branch Rickey as a young man. Still think having Harrison Ford play him was a stretch?)
That incident from Rickey’s past I’d hoped to see in the movie as a flashback gets in there in a confession Rickey makes to Robinson. Ford delivers the lines as an awkward and embarrassed apology. Back then, he tells Robinson, he knew what his player was going through was wrong but he didn’t have the courage to do something about it. Now he’s placing yet another burden on Robinson’s shoulders by looking to him to redeem his moral failure of thirty years before.
42 doesn't go out of its way to congratulate its white characters, like Dodger coach and scout Clyde Sukeforth and pitcher Ralph Branca, who treat Robinson decently. It's more interested in manager Leo Durocher's romantic misadventures with movie star Larraine Day, which got him suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the Forty-seven season started, than in Durocher's championing of Robinson, although it does give Chris Meloni, who is excellent as Durocher, one powerful scene in which he puts the kibosh on a players mutiny being organized by some of the Southerners on the team led by Dixie Walker who think the Dodgers management would rather keep them than let Robinson play. 42 isn't one of those well-meaning but inadvertently insulting movies that portray episodes from the Civil Rights movement as cases of brave and kindly white people coming to the rescue of noble but powerless on their own black folk.
Instead, what we see more of is Robinson's morally uplifting effect upon some whites, starting with a few of his teammates. This includes Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
The famous moment at Cincinnati's Crosley Field when Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky playing before what was for him something of a hometown crowd---Kentucky lying just across the Ohio River---silenced the boobirds by putting his arm over Robinson's shoulders, a gesture that legend has it earned Reese his plaque in the Hall of Fame, is presented as Robinson doing the white guy the favor.
Despite how it might look from a distance, Reese (affably played by Lucas Black) assures Robinson, what's really happening is that he's thanking Robinson for giving him the courage to decide between what he knows to be right and attitudes he was taught growing up. You made a better man of me, is his essential point.
But, to make sure we don't get too sentimental and make too much of the moment's effect, at the same time Reese and Robinson are having their conversation on the field, up in the stands a white Cincinatti fan is instructing his young son on how to hate the black man Robinson. The boy takes the lesson immediately to heart and enthusiastically joins in on the boos and the jeers. But when he sees his hero Reese put his arm around Robinson, he looks stricken, baffled, and sick to his stomach. Suddenly he's struggling with a choice similiar to Reese's. He has to choose between his father and what he's just been shown is right. His dilemma isn't resolved when the scene ends and we're left to wonder which way he'll choose.
Given the time and place and what we know is coming over the next twenty years and a son's natural instinct to take after his father, it's unlikely he'll choose well. It's frighteningly easy to imagine this cute little boy as a young man dumping milk shakes over the heads of people sitting in at lunch counters and screaming at children on their way to school.
One brave man has only so much redemptive power.
42 is an inspiring film but not a triumphant one. It doesn't reward Robinson with the comforting knowledge he has saved anybody or anything but himself and his baseball career---and that's only for now. There's still a lot to be done and a lot of troubled water ahead. In the end, it leaves him and Rachel only a liitle less alone than when we met them.
Robinson may have been a man alone, but Boseman sure isn’t an actor alone. Along with Beharie and Ford, he gets strong support from Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith was the sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier and later became the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America but at the time he was writing his stories in the stands with his typewriter on his knees because he wasn’t welcome in the press box. The Courier sent Smith on the road with Robinson. In the movie he acts as Robinson’s press agent and advance man but also as his conscience. Howard is by turns amusing and affecting as a basically nervous and introverted intellectual inspired by Robinson to find the courage to stand up to…Robinson and push his hero to be even more heroic.
Chris Meloni has a grand time as Leo the Lip Durocher. The script gives him some of the best lines, after Ford’s, and two scenes of him on the phone to Rickey are two of the funniest in the movie. Max Gail has a sly cameo as the easy to underestimate Burt Shotten who replaced Durocher as manager after Durocher’s suspension. T.R. Knight is a hoot as Harold Parrott, Rickey’s timid, bottom line-watching, bean-counting assistant who develops what Rickey calls “sympathy” for Robinson but which looks like an irresistible urge to start going around punching racists in the snoot. Alan Tudyk is delightfully despicable as the racist whose snoot Parrott wants to punch first and hardest, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a shameless insult artist who taunts Robinson in the vilest ways from the safety of his dugout in one of the film’s necessarily ugly but most powerful scenes.
42 – The Jackie Robinson Story, written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Chris Meloni, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
I think I'm all caught up with my thank you notes. The last of them will go out in the mail Monday. If I promised you a note or a post card and you don't get it by Saturday, it's probably the case that I forgot to put a stamp on it or a poor postal worker somewhere along the line couldn't read my handwriting and just threw it into a random bin in despair and it's on its way to the opposite side of the country. Drop me an email and I'll try again.
Can't be said enough: thanks to all who donated this time and thanks to all who have donated in the past and thanks to all of you for your patience and tolerance for putting up with the appeals. And thanks to everyone for reading the blog.
By the way, even if you didn't donate or if you did and already got snail mail for me, I'll still be glad to send you a post card from Mannionville. I love sending post cards and the USPS needs the business. Send me your snail mail address and I'll get something out to you ASAP.
Things are still bumpy around here and they're going to continue to be for another couple of weeks. This week is a particularly rough ride. If you like what goes on around here, and you can swing it, a donation would be much appreciated.
Tonight’s feature for Family Movie Night, Emperor. From last week’s feature, The Sapphires, here’s Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd) explaining to the Sapphires the difference between what they used to sing, Country-Western, and what, under his direction and guidance, they’re now going to sing, Soul:
Before we go again. Girls, when I met you, you were doing your own country western thing, and that’s fine. We all make mistakes. But here’s where we learn from that mistake. Country and Western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. The difference is, in Country and Western, they’ve lost, they’ve given up, and they’re just at home whining about it. In Soul Music, they’re struggling to get it back and they haven’t given up. So every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her!
Here’s a result of Dave’s lesson:
Thumbs up all around here in Mannionville. The Sapphires is available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
From today’s Morning Edition:
Less well-known, though, is the case of John Willis, a white man from Dorchester, Mass., who was on Thursday to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Willis masterminded an organized crime group that distributed and sold hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills, according to prosecutors.
What made Willis such an unusual criminal, however, was his unlikely rise as a white man through the criminal underworld of Boston's Chinatown.
Doors Opened For The 'White Devil'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Moran has a binder of court documents with a label "White Devil," named after Willis' Cantonese nickname, "Bac Guai John" — "White Devil John." ("Bac guai" is often used as a pejorative term to describe white people in the Chinese dialect of Cantonese.)
The man known as White Devil John was born into a white family. Willis lost both his mother and older brother as a teenager, according to his defense attorney, Jeffrey Denner. He was homeless until a local Chinese family took him in as one of their own. They taught him to speak both Cantonese and Toisanese dialects of Chinese and Vietnamese — language skills that helped a white man navigate Chinatown's immigrant enclave and gain access to its organized gangs.
If you’re wondering, a movie is already in the works.
Read and listen to Hansi Lo Wang’s story, Chinatown’s ‘White Devil John’ Sentenced to 20 Years, at NPR.org.
Drawing by Jane Collins, courtesy of NPR.
David Copperfield, the main character and narrator of David Copperfield, the novel, written by Charles Dickens but ostensibly the autobiography of the aforesaid David Copperfield, character and narrator and, it's revealed, famous novelist, begins David Copperfield, again, the novel, with what amounts to practically an apology:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
...as if he's warning us that he's not responsible for the story he's about to tell, which he isn't, since he's a character in that story being manipulated as much as every other character by the real human being writing the story. Dickens could be routinely and almost offhandedly meta. He was always present inside his own fictions and breaking through the fourth wall as the storyteller. He never let his readers forget they were being told a story, which is to say, that what they were reading was made up, a work of imagination, not real.
Dickens wasn't strictly speaking a realist.
He was a Dickens-ist.
But never mind.
Almost immediately those pages show that David Copperfield, the character and narrator, is not going to turn out to be the hero of his own life (or book) and that station will be held by somebody but not just anybody else. His eccentric fairy godmother, his formidable Aunt Betsey, bustles her way onto the scene, blesses the infant David in his crib in the very strangest and most roundabout way a fairy godmother has ever blessed a child she will protect until they all live happily ever after, and bustles out but not without putting her stamp on the story with such force that her presence is felt for the next two hundred pages while she is gone from the book.
David Copperfield was one of the first of Dickens' books I read and I read it at a very critical time, when it was guaranteed to make too great an impression, during Christmas break my freshman year of college. From that first reading (I've read it five or six times since. I've lost count.) I learned three things.
Dickens should always be read at Christmastime.
Realism is over-rated. Real is what a novelist starts with, the way a painter starts with a glance at the scenery or a glimpse of an interesting face.
A first person narrator should not be the hero of his own story if that story is going to be something other and better than one long brag, whine, or exercise in narcissistic self-directed psychotherapeutic excuse-making.
The first person narrators of many detective novels have to be the heroes of their stories for technical and conventional reasons, but...
Nick Carraway is not the hero of The Great Gatsby. Ishmael is not the hero of Moby-Dick. Jack Crabb isn't the hero of Little Big Man . Huck Finn is far from being his own hero or, if he is, he sure doesn't think of himself that way. Heroes and villains are Tom Sawyer 's department, the stuff of Tom's daydreams and games, and Tom's interference in Huck's story, when Tom assigns himself and Huck the roles of heroes, almost gets Jim killed.
Except for Augie March, Saul Bellows' first person narrators are practically the villains of their books.
Holden Caulfield isn't exactly the hero of Catcher in the Rye, but he thinks rather highly of himself compared to every other character in the novel except Phoebe, who is his ideal not his heroine, and that's why few readers over the age of eighteen can stand him. You have to be as adolescent as Holden to appreciate the virtues he attributes to himself.
In case you haven't guessed, I read Catcher in the Rye around the same time I read David Copperfield and Salinger lost out to Dickens.
But, getting back to Dickens, Pip isn't his own hero in Great Expectations. Almost the opposite. He is the object of his own intense self-criticism and self-satire.
The job of a first person narrator, I long ago decided, is to provide a personal, intimate, emotionally engaged but naturally limited point of view. There are things first person narrators just can't know from the outset and things they will never know. Crucial information is denied them and they have to spend their stories trying to figure things out and they don't always manage to do that. Huck has to work to get to know, understand, and sympathize with Jim. Nick has to work to gain insight into Gatsby. Ishmael never figures out Ahab.
And because there are things first person narrators can't know, there are things they miss and misinterpret and just get plain wrong. Their reliability is always in doubt.
Also, because they are characters in their own stories with volition and motivations of their own, they can have reason to be deliberately unreliable. They can try to make themselves look good. They can try to make themselves look bad. They can embellish. They can leave things out. They can lie. The fun might even be in knowing they're lying, as is the case with Aaron Burr in Gore Vidal's Burr, or in our not being sure just how much of what they're telling us is the truth, as it is with Jack Crabb.
Ariel Zinsky, the narrator of Ilan Mochari's debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure, is a young man looking back on the first thirty years of his not very event-filled or joy-filled life, searching for evidence that his being alive was worth the bother to himself, at least, if to no one else, and for a reason to keep bothering for another thirty.
Don't think, though, that Zinsky the Obscure is an extended riff on Hamlet's To be or not to be speech. It's simply an honestly and objectively attempted toting up and balancing off of losses and gains in a manner befitting the autobiography of an accountant.
Zinsky is the loving and devoted but selfish, because he's emotionally defensive and withdrawn, with good reason, son of a somewhat eccentric English teacher mother raising him on her own in genteel poverty after her divorce from his charismatic but physically abusive father. Which is what defines Zinsky and his life, the secret beatings his father gave him when he was a little boy whenever custodial visits forced them into each other's company.
Naturally, this has traumatized Zinsky and left him with a lifetime burden of shame and guilt, as if the beatings and his father's rage were his fault ---Mochari does an excellent job of portraying the manipulativeness of the abuser---but he developed his coping mechanisms early and he sticks with them throughout the novel, which are to keep himself aloof from strangers in case they might guess his secret, repress his own feelings so they can't be hurt, and scale back his expectations for happiness to the point of thinking that a good day is a day on which nothing too terrible happens. Since he's a pathological homebody---home is where the heart is for most people. For Zinsky home is where no one can touch you.---and he's taught himself never to take any physical or emotional risks, this has become the routine of his life, one dull, lonely but not too terrible day after another, the high points of which are, after he reaches puberty, his extended sessions of masturbation.
Zinsky the Obscure is the story of how an isolated, lonely, alienated, unhappy, and self-loathing young man becomes in slow stages and through very little effort of his own slightly less isolated, lonely , unhappy, and self-loathing.
As you might guess then, Zinsky is not the hero of his own story, which is a plus, I guess, although it might have been fun to read a story in which a character as lacking in heroic qualities as Zinsky is forced by circumstance into playing the role of hero.
He's not his own villain either. Zinsky is even more lacking in villainous qualities than he is in heroic ones. He's, generally, a decent-hearted, well-meaning guy, just ineffectual. A six foot eight inch tall, one hundred and fifty pound, prematurely bald nebbish with one not very overwhelming desire in life.
Not love. Not romance. Not passion. Not even erotic thrill. Just the release that comes from ejaculating into something more attractive and responsive than his own hand.
I should mention, although you've probably guessed, that Zinsky's masturbatory habits feature regularly in the novel and you might want to clear a place for it in that special section of your bookshelf next to Portnoy's Complaint and John McGahern’s The Dark.
As a narrator, Zinsky doesn't brag, although sometimes he comes perversely close to bragging that he has nothing to brag about. He doesn't whine; he just doesn't have much good news to report. He doesn't go in for the sort of intensive self-analysis that leads to psychotherapeutic catharsis, mainly because he's too self-protective, but partly because he bores himself. For the same reasons, he avoids self-criticism of the kind Pip subjects himself to nor is he the object of self-satire---he would need a sense of humor for that.
Possibly not the best choice for the narrator of a 342 page novel, a humorless, passive, self-obsessed, emotionally attenuated Peter Pan who can't fly, fight pirates, tame crocodiles, dance with Indians, flirt with mermaids, or bring himself to believe in fairies.
Zinsky is the kind of character you'd expect the world to gang up on just to make him wake up and pay attention.
For the most part, the world is as uninterested in Zinsky as he is in it.
What Zinsky the character is to Zinsky the narrator is an object of obsessive study. He is his main subject, practically his only subject. He stares into his past as ruthlessly as a teenager stares into a mirror determined to count every single one of his pimples. Zinsky the Obscure is a series of self-portraits by an artist who has made a vanity out of his lack of vanity. Here you see me in all my unattractive foolishness, he declares. Here I am at five sheepishly eating a McDonalds Happy Meal, effectively accepting a bribe from my father to not tell anyone how he beats me. Here I am at fifteen losing all my hair all at once for no medically explicable reason. Here I am as a teenager working in a grocery store and getting a co-worker fired as a result of my naive sense of right and wrong. Here I am in college failing at math but somehow passing my accounting classes. Here I am learning too late to make a career out of it or play on any school team that I'm pretty good at basketball. Here I am waiting tables in Boston. Here I am engaging in anal sex for the first time. Here I am getting caught masturbating by my mother. Here I am at twenty-eight on the day my girlfriend, one of three women who let me sleep with them despite my persistent charmlessness, told me she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby and marry me and I decided to be a selfish dick about it.
What's a novelist to do with this as his main character? Where's a novel to go with this as its point of view?
Well, if Zinsky was your creation, one thing you could do is give him a vivid and active inner life, and, amazingly, Zinsky has one. It revolves around the sport he is physically and, for that matter, psychologically least suited to play, football. Zinsky, the failed mathematician and dissatisfied accounting major, realizes that football is as much a game of numbers as baseball and this insight leads to his becoming to football what Bill James was to baseball, the best analyst and best judge of talent the game has ever seen. His one and only passion and source of joy turns out to be his one and only area of real competence and this happy coincidence spurs him to the only independent and positive action in his life.
He begins to write and publish The Quintessential Guide to the NFL Draft, which although it comes close to bankrupting him at the outset, becomes indispensible to coaches, agents, and fantasy football leaguers across the nation and sets him on the road to fame and fortune. It also leads him into adventures, of sorts. He has to commit burglaries and hack into other people's computers to get the Guide up and going. But his narrative focus remains on the surface. He tells us a lot about the business side of running the Guide but he doesn't let us see the love and imagination working together to get the Guide written. The numbers he gives us are his production costs not the numbers he uses to evaluate players. We don't see him watching a game, so we don't see what he sees when he's either at work or just enjoying the play on the field. He is indifferent to and disconnected from his ever increasing number of rabid football fan readers, so he doesn't have to share his feelings and insights with us via them. He doesn't rhapsodize about any favorite players. He doesn't tell stories about great games of the past or, as you'd expect of such an obsessive, go deep into the details analyzing a specific series of downs or single play. He doesn't even apologize for liking the Jets over the Giants.
The sections of the novel dealing with the Guide turn out to be continuations of Zinsky's preferred Here I am doing this, now here I am doing the thing that followed from that mode of storytelling. The most interesting, vital, and attractive thing about him---regardless of how you feel about football, a great passion is always attractive---is presented purely as a money making enterprise. Zinsky might as well have opened a dry cleaners. In fact, it might have been better for the book if he had because he wouldn't have been able to hide from his customers and employees or if he did it would have been funny.
So, having written your way around your narrator's inner life and given away your chance to show him as imaginatively active and engaged with at least the world inside his own head, what's your next move?
You could throw him into a plot in which he is forced out the door and to act against his instincts, wishes, and self-interest. The cops could arrive during one of his breaking and entering adventures. Obsessed fans of the Guide could invade his life and make an unwilling celebrity of him. The Football Establishment could decide, as the Baseball Establishment did with Bill James, that he's an enemy and set out to shut him and the Guide down.
I think it's clear Mochari chose not to go this route.
You could, then, put him in the company of characters who are his opposites, active, outward going, emotionally engaged, looking to find happiness or escape trouble or cause problems.
In short, you could write more of a social novel instead of a purely autobiographical one.
This isn't a strategy Dickens adopted just for David Copperfield. It was his whole reason for being as a storyteller. The constant collisions of all sorts and conditions, of types and stereotypes, of men and women and monsters and grotesques, of virtue and vice, of good and evil, in public and private but always in a crowd, is the source of most of the action and all of the plots from Pickwick through Drood.
No matter how alone and forgotten David is as a boy or how wrapped up in himself he sometimes gets as a young man, the crowd impresses itself upon his consciousness and ignites his imagination.
You're probably thinking it's unfair to compare a young writer's first novel to the greatest novel of the greatest English novelist writing in his prime, and ordinarily I'd agree. But Mochari himself invites the comparisons. Actually, he insists on the comparisons.
The full title of Dickens’ novel (and David’s autobiography) is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).
Zinksy the Obscure is Molchari’s title for his novel. Zinksy’s title for his autobiography, announced in large letters on a page of its own at the beginning of the book, is The Personal History and Experience and Observation of Ariel Zinsky, An Only Child From New Hyde Park, Long Island.
Note the missing note of self-deprecation in Zinsky’s title.
As if that isn’t enough, Molchari opens with an intentionally shocking epigraph taken from David Copperfield and then essentially closes the book by letting Zinsky quote another passage from Copperfield to explain his thoughts and feelings as his story comes to an end without any apparent awareness that he's a thirty year old man claiming the feelings of a very small boy as his own.
David Copperfield plays two supporting roles in his own life story. First, he's a child from a fairy tale lost in the woods, then he is the juvenile love interest in a more realistic satire. But his main job is to become the writer capable of writing this book. And he shows us how this happens by showing his emotional and imaginative involvement with the host of other characters he gets entangled with. David is preternaturally self-aware, which is why he's so reliable when relating his own feelings. But he's even more aware of others and more interested in them. Some of that awareness is that of the older novelist imposing it upon scenes in which he's portraying himself as a lonely and neglected little boy and then as a self-absorbed adolescent and young man at times when he couldn't have been expected to have been paying much attention to anyone other than himself. But on some level he must have been taking it all in or else his adult self wouldn't have the memories from which to work.
Throughout the novel, there's an ironic contrast between what the young David thought was going on and what his older, writer self now knows was happening.
There is no contrast between the younger and older Zinskys.
Zinsky sees a lot, remembers a lot, and re-imagines none of it. He can't work his way back into his own past to "see" what he failed to see at times when he was too caught up in himself because he's still that caught up in himself. As a result, he can only report the past as if it's the present. There is no difference between Zinsky the narrator and Zinsky the character at different stages in his growing up. Zinsky at thirty seems pretty much the same person he was at fifteen.
Despite all this, there is one key and redeeming way Zinsky is forced to be more like David Copperfield. As much as he would like to, he can't get away from the crowd.
No matter how determined Zinsky is to be left alone, he keeps encountering other characters even more determined not to leave him that way. His father, his girlfriends, his step-sister, and, most importantly, his mother force their way into his life and make him pay attention to them and the larger world in which they thrive. And although Zinsky is nowhere near as capable as David Copperfield of imagining his way into the heads of others, he is observant and meticulous. He gets his facts straight and he's fair, even at his own expense. He's a good reporter.
Everything Zinsky does, every place he lives, works, or visits, everyone he meets are precisely and persuasively described. We may not get an intimate sense of what makes particular characters tick, but we do get the sense of knowing what they are like. And what we know about what Zinsky's mother Barbara is like is enough to tell us that, unlike her son, she is heroic.
She's not the heroine of Zinsky's life, at least not as directly as Aunt Betsey is the heroine of David's. But she’s the heroine of her own. A tragic heroine.
Barbara is a talented and dedicated teacher who could have been a great teacher if she'd felt free to be more ambitious. But she's devoted herself to raising her strange, socially incompetent, baffling child. Zinsky is lonely by choice. Barbara is lonely by necessity and it's not only to protect Zinsky. Plenty of men who would marry her, some of whom she might even like to marry, come and go as Zinsky is growing up, but she maintains her independence for the sake of caution and self-preservation.
Having made one disastrous choice in a first husband, she doesn't trust herself not to make another.
Zinsky sees what she's going through. He recognizes her decisions are costing her in ways he can only guess at. And that's just it. He can only guess because he can't imagine his way into her heart and head. As devoted as they are to each other and dependent on each other’s company, Zinsky and his mother remain essentially strangers. It takes him the whole novel to appreciate her sufferings and her small triumphs and by the time he does it's too late, which is a second tragedy in its own right, and it's what makes Zinsky the Obscure a sad and moving story despite its obtuse and irksome narrator.
There are readers of mine who think I do my best blogging on Cape Cod. Sometimes I agree with them. Other day I stumbled upon this post from July 2010, same vacation as our trip to the Gorey House.
Other day. Tuesday. I’m bobbing about in Oyster Pond, not exactly swimming, more like engaging in some directed drift, around the barrel-supported rafts at the farthest reaches of the roped in swimming area, lazily batting aside moon jellies, which I don’t see but feel on the backs of my hands as sudden and a subtle pockets of tautness in the water, ducking my head when the green head flies come find me, but except for the flies and the jelly fish all alone and mightily enjoying the solitude, until I realize I’m hearing voices. A young couple, a boy and a girl in their late teens or early twenties, have swum out and climbed aboard the nearest raft while my attention was on something else.
They’re stretched out in the sun, she lying full-length on her back, he propped up on his elbows beside her, and they’re holding a quiet but apparently cheerful conversation. I don’t know what they’re talking about because I don’t speak whatever Eastern European language they’re speaking.
College students working on the Cape for the summer. Tip jars on the counters of coffee shops and snack bars around here are labeled with the names of schools like Southwestern University of Bulgaria and Odessa State.
I couldn’t make out their faces. I don’t wear my glasses when I’m swimming. But they were lean and fit and deeply tanned and beautiful in outline. Their voices were filled with affectionate familiarity, flirtatious but not intimate, although a couple of times she shrieked and then laughed nervously in an embarrassed but thrilled despite herself way at something he said and then spoke sharply quite clearly telling him to cut it out in their language. Mostly, though, their talk was just the this and that back and forth of a young couple contentedly in love enjoying each other’s company.
They weren’t taking any notice of me but I felt awkward and intrusive for taking notice of them and I pushed off towards shore to give them the privacy I thought they deserved.
Back on the beach, I looked out at the raft. They were still there, still talking. “Were we ever that young?” I thought to myself with amusement, affection, nostalgia, and a touch of regret. “We must have been. So how come I don’t remember it?”
I’m telling you this so that when I tell you about this other couple and you suspect a Hey you kids, get off my lawn quality in what I tell you, you’ll give me some credit and not dismiss me as an old fogey grumping that youth is wasted on the young. I’m an old fogey who likes to see the young making the most of their youth and the sight of couples like the boy and girl at Oyster Pond make me happy even while I mourn my own lost youth.
This other couple though…
Saturday. Lighthouse Beach. The Mannions and Uncle Merlin are frolicking in the numbingly cold surf. Turning blue, I take a quick look up at the beach and the long dash across the sand to the nearest warm towel and I see that this couple has spread out on their towels and blanket right next to our stuff where they have gotten busy making the most of their youth.
I confess to having gotten carried away a few times in my day. There were moments in open fields and shady glens and empty classrooms and parked cars and parents’ basements and, once, a library stairwell where the privacy I assumed we had stolen was more of a lucky gift and there was no reason that no one came along to interrupt except that no one ever did.
That I know of.
But I never went looking for an audience.
It wasn’t as if they could think they had stumbled on a temporarily secluded spot that they were too young and too much in love to resist taking advantage of. While our towels and chairs were empty, other towels and chairs and blankets around and about were not.
They had company on all sides, a dozen or so people of all ages and sorts and conditions sharing a single thought.
“Get a dune!”
She was on top, straddling his hips, and she was not sitting still. He held her gently, his hands just above her waist. They were like the other couple lean and fit and deeply tanned and beautiful in outline, but they were also beautiful close up too. Not movie star beautiful or model beautiful or even professional athlete beautiful. Beautiful the way averagely good looking people will be for a relatively short period in their youth when a combination of good health, good spirits, genetic luck, and a suffusion of hormones cause them to blossom like gorgeous wildflowers. This happens to different people at different times. For some it occurs in their late teens or early twenties, for others it holds off until they are in their late twenties or even early thirties. These two, who I judged were twenty-one or twenty-two, were blossoming together.
I’ve always believed that couples who engage in prolonged public displays of affection have no other way of engaging with each other. They don’t talk because they have nothing to say.
I can’t swear this was the case with this couple. But they stayed on the beach the whole while we were there and they weren’t lip-locked or hip-locked the whole time and the only time either of them did any talking at length was when he saw a friend of his and went over to say hi. She tagged after him but she didn’t join in and he showed no sign of wanting to include her. She hung back, the conversation stayed between the two guys, and when it ended the couple went back to their blanket and their mutual near silence.
It’s easy to imagine that they had nothing in common but the fact that they were both perfect at the same time. And it’s satisfying to think that in the not too distant future she’ll be out with friends and see him with his new girlfriend and say, “Can you believe he’s going with her? She’s fat!” or that he’ll be out with his friends and see her and say, “What’s she doing with him? He’s a geek!”
And it’s pleasant to imagine that the first couple’s conversation will continue, with the same affection and cheerfulness and flirtatiousness on through their Fiftieth Anniversary.
But life doesn’t work that way, does it?
Because they talk to each other and listen, the first couple might figure out sooner that they’re on different paths and need to go their separate ways.
Because they don’t talk, the second couple might never figure it out and proceed happily towards their Fiftieth Anniversary with no clue and no thought that they each might have had a different sort of life.
The first couple might be talking themselves out of a romance and into a friendship. The second couple, having exhausted themselves one night, might start chatting amiably and discover they can’t shut up and they’ve begun a conversation full of affection and good humor and flirtation that will go on year after year without end end until one of them can no longer talk anymore.
But for sentimental reasons my money’s on the first couple. The second couple’s having their fun now and it’s enough and good for them. Good luck to them both in whatever comes next. But I want to believe that twenty or twenty-five years from now the first couple will be down here with their kids and he’ll look out from the beach one day and see another couple on the float, talking, and he’ll think with more amusement and affection than nostalgia and regret, “Were we ever that young?”
Speaking of Edward Gorey and his ballerinas, which I was doing in my review of Despicable Me 2 below, reminded me that I visited Gorey’s house on Cape Cod three years ago. Here are the notes I posted from that visit July 23, 2010:
Drove over to Yarmouth Port to visit the one-time home of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey and if I was clever enough the following notes would be presented alphabetically and in rhymed couplets as an homage to one of Gorey’s most famous books, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, kind of like this:
A is for ashes divided in thirds.
B is for books that he drew and sometimes wrote the words.
C is for cats who played with his ink.
D is for Dracula that made him rich clink clink clink
E is for Elephant House which he bought on a whim.
F is fur coats in which he looked quite trim.
No Edward Gorey, am I?
Better skip it.
Here are some notes on the visit, unrhymed and unalphabetized:
The skull on the table in the kitchen, wearing polarized sunglasses, is not Gorey’s.
People often ask, thinking that the keepers of the museum his house has become are as macabre as they assume Gorey himself was, their judgment of him as the kind of person who would want his skull displayed for the amusement of tourists based on his long career of producing pen and ink drawings that looked like they must have sprung from the mind of the kind of person who would want his skull displayed for the amusement of tourists.
Gorey died in 2000 at 75.
He keeled over on the couch in the living room of this house.
He was cremated and his ashes were divided.
One third were sent to be buried in Ohio in a family plot.
One third were set out to sea right here on the Cape.
And the last third were held in reserve, at his request, to be mingled with the ashes of his cats when the last of them died.
The last of the cats, Jane, died this spring.
Arrangements are being made.
Gorey drew his first cartoon when he was one and a half years old.
At the age of 6, he decided it was time to read a book by himself.
The book he chose to read was Dracula.
He was working on his own version of Dracula when he died.
In between, Dracula made his fortune.
He designed the sets and costumes for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula starring Frank Langella.
He won a Tony for his costume designs.
He was miffed that he didn’t win one for his set designs.
He was a devotee of the New York City Ballet and worshipped George Balanchine.
He used to attend rehearsals.
When Balanchine died Gorey declared that there was no reason to live in New York City anymore.
He bought the house in Yarmouth Port in 1987 with the money he made off Dracula.
Supposedly, he decided to buy the house when he was on the Cape visiting relatives and he passed by it one day and saw that the paint on the door was peeling.
That door needs to be repainted, he said and he was going to be the one that repainted it.
The house got nicknamed Elephant House because a friend thought the weathered siding looked like elephant hide.
Gorey put his studio in a small room upstairs.
His drawing table faced a window that was blocked by a large magnolia tree.
He chose that window so he wouldn’t be distracted by the view when he worked.
He worked kneeling down.
The door to the studio was always left open so his cats could come and go as they pleased.
The cats often came and went across his drawing table.
No one knows how many drawings in progress the cats ruined.
At one time, Gorey owned 21 full length fur coats.
One by one the coats were given away or sold off.
There are two left.
One is coyote fur.
It’s dyed yellow.
Perhaps to assuage his conscience over having worn their relatives at one time or another, Gorey allowed a family of raccoons to live in his attic.
He also allowed vines around the house to grow in through the windows of some rooms.
Got the impression he was not big on maintenance.
Also that his attitude towards housekeeping was philosophical bordering on the theoretical.
He may have bought the house mainly for storage and his living there was an afterthought.
He filled the place up with his many collections, which included rocks, junk he reflexively bought at yard sales, stuffed animals, and books.
Lots of books.
As many as 25,000 books.
He didn’t believe in shelves either.
But he had a system.
If anyone asked to borrow a book, he knew immediately whether or not he had it and exactly where among the many stacks to find it.
He loved stuffed animals.
Liked to get them as gifts.
Liked to make them himself.
Sewed the bodies as he watched television.
Favorite shows included Cheers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Petticoat Junction.
The stuffed animals were stuffed with rice.
He’d go out to the kitchen during commercials to stuff them.
Then he got hooked on commercials.
He could no longer force himself to leave the room during commercial breaks.
Didn’t know how he was going to continue making stuffed animals.
Someone gave him a box of Uncle Ben’s Rice with a pour spout.
He kept the box by him as he watched TV and sewed.
Many stuffed animals followed.
Visitors to the house these days often include people who tell the docents they aren’t familiar with Gorey’s work and ask what they should know him from.
Our docent told us that she tells them that they probably do know Gorey’s work if not his name.
She’ll then show them a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Cats illustrated by…
Oh, they’ll say, impressed now, because they all know the musical.
Gorey actually made his living and his reputation as an illustrator of other writers’ works.
Of course most visitors know Gorey for the work he did for Edward Gorey, particularly The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
There are Gashleycrumb Tinies around the house.
Like George here, smothered under a rug.
And Yorick, whose head was bashed in.
Since the mid-1980s, though, Gorey has been equally as well known for the opening credit sequence for PBS’ Mystery!
When PBS commissioned him to do the drawings that would be turned into the cartoon, they asked him for a storyboard for a one-minute cartoon.
He turned in a storyboard that would have run 45 minutes if it had been filmed.
Derek Lamb, the animator, drove up to Yarmouthport to have a talk with him.
Together they managed to pare things down to this:
Gorey-er: An interview with Gorey at the Mystery! website.
Paranoid assassin Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), thrill-seeking former government clerk Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), and retired CIA super-spook Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) are on the run again from assassins, spies, double agents, and mad scientists in Red 2, the even more over the top follow-up to the over the top action-adventure comedy Red. Willis’ goofy t-shirt and goofier expression signal the stylistic and tonal differences between the original and the sequel.
Whatever Red did with one shot of John Malkovich deadpanning evidence of insanity, Red 2 does with twenty.
Whatever Red did subtly and slyly to get laughs, Red 2…doesn’t do. Subtltety and slyness are not among its virtues.
None of these comparisons are damning criticisms of Red 2. They're statements of stylistic and tonal difference. Red 2 isn't more of the same. It's just plain more. Red was a relatively modest action-adventure comedy that moved along with patience, allowing its charms and surprises to sneak up on you as it built towards its over the top final shootout. Red 2's director Dean Parisot, taking over the franchise from Red's Robert Schwentke, assumes that since we've already been charmed and surprised, we're ready to laugh at what previously charmed and surprised us. In effect, he's made Red 2 an affectionate spoof of Red.
Red was hardly realistic, but it started out by grounding itself in the real world or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. When we first meet recently and uneasily retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), he appears to be an average middle-aged single guy feeling bored and lonely as he tries to start his life over in a non-descript suburb in Anywheresville, USA.
If we didn't know better, when we see him on the phone awkwardly and embarrassedly inventing excuses to keep the conversation going with Sarah, a clerk in the government pension office (played by a cute and fluffy Mary-Louise Parker smoothing off all the hard edges she'd developed over the years on Weeds), herself as bored and lonely as Frank, we could be be fooled into thinking we're watching the opening of a Nora Ephron-esque romantic comedy or, at any rate, a Hitchcock-inspired mystery-romance.
Our first clue that Frank isn't your average lonely single guy is that he clearly has no clue as to how to fit into his new neighborhood. In fact, not only wherever he's come from it wasn't the burbs, he wasn't following the calendar either and he's surprised to realize it's Christmastime, which only dawns on him when he notices his is the only house on the block without any decorations.
Our second clue is the team of ski-masked assassins who show up in the night and shoot the house to pieces in an attempt to kill Frank.
Frank, as if we hadn't guessed, turns out to have a dangerous past and it's now catching up with him.
This connection to reality, stretched thin as it was, allowed Schwentke to play for small stakes. Frank's only objective was to keep himself and Sarah, who of course got caught up in the adventure, alive long enough to find out who wants them dead and thwart them. The fact the world of Red included people who could kill an agent as competent and dangerous in his own right as Frank was enough to create anxiety and suspense and kept the simple and straight-forward plot humming along.
Parisot doesn't worry about reality. He takes his cues from the graphic novels the movies are based on. Things happen because they make for exciting visuals. Characters exist to carry the plot from one exciting visual to another. In Red, the central villain was a cowardly politician desperate to maintain his viability as a potential Presidential candidate by covering up a war crime he committed as a young marine in Central America in the 1980s. In Red 2, once again, fallout from from a mission from Frank's past threatens his and Sarah's lives, but while in Red the mission had a historical basis that gave the film a plot that could have come out of a novel by Ross Thomas or Elmore Leonard, in Red 2 the mission and with it the chief villain, a cackling mad scientist seeking to wreek vengeance on the world, are straight out of Ian Fleming.
Red 2 begins with the premise that after all he and Sarah went through in Red, Frank has decided he wants the boring suburban life he seemed almost relieved to have had to flee at the beginning of Red. Not just for his own peace and quiet though. He thinks a house in the suburbs---well-stocked and equipped in one trip to Costco, where the movie opens and the relentless product placement gets underway---will be a safe haven for Sarah too. He's so spooked by the possibility that more ghosts from his past will pop up to threaten her that he's ignoring the fact she'd enjoy that.
It turns out that Sarah, having lived the suburban dream Frank's trying to hide them both in, is cheerfully addicted to the the new life of danger and adventure Frank accidentally dragged her into in Red.
Frank's refusal to take her opinion on the matter seriously gives Sarah the excuse to stay mad at him for most of the movie and punish him passively and aggressively as they run from shootout to shootout and gives John Malkovich back as Frank's ultra-paranoid sidekick, Marvin, countless occasions to give the two couples counseling on the fly---his advice is remarkably clear-headed, practical, and insightful for a psychopath.
At any rate, before Frank can check out of Costco with his new gas grill, Marvin pops up with the news that the ghosts are already on the loose, a plot to kill the three of them is underway, and they'd better get moving right away to hunt down the villains behind or else. Immediately, or else happens. Bullets start flying, cars blow up in the parking lot, Marvin is killed (I'm not spoiling anything by telling you not really), Frank and Sarah are captured by rogue CIA agents, Bruce Willis gets to re-enact all the Die Hard movies in the space of three minutes inside a storeroom, Marvin returns with a kidnapped Army intelligence officer in the trunk of his car, and then things really get rolling.
The chase is international this time and takes the gang to Paris, to London, to Moscow, and back to London. Along the way they reunite with their old comrade in arms, the quasi-retired MI6 secret agent Victoria Winslow--- Helen Mirren here given the chance to show Daniel Craig how it's done, and now that I think about, how great would it have been if she'd turned up in one of Timothy Dalton's Bonds as a fellow Double 0?---trade bullets, bombs, and barbs with Byung-hun Lee as yet another ghost with a grudge from Frank's past, team up with Catherine Zeta-Jones as still another ghost, this one carrying a torch as well as nursing a grudge---Marvin unhelpfully describes her to Sarah as "Frank's kryptonite", giving Sarah another reason to be mad at Frank and torture him, jealousy---and come to the rescue of Antony Hopkins as the most absent-minded professor in movie history.
Brian Cox returns as Ivan, Victoria's once and again Russian lover, to reveals he has a foot fetish Victoria is willing to indulge as long as it doesn't distract from her sharpshooting. Morgan Freeman's character is gone. Ernest Borgnine is really gone. Neal McDonough replaces Karl Urban as the bad guys' go-to guy for Frank Moses elimination. Urban's character was meant to be something of a version of Frank's younger self but one who's made the mistake of thinking he can have the safe suburban life at the same time he's working as essentially a paid assassin, a mistake that puts a strain on his conscience which Frank exploits and further grounds Red in reality. McDonough's Jack Horton is simply a maniacally grinning legman without conscience, scruples, or connection to reality. He's straight out of Comicbookland, which works because it's McDonough, who, with his ice blue eyes, slashing grin, rocky jaw, and, as it's described by a rival bad guy on Justified, giant baby's head, looks like he was designed by God to play comic book characters come to life.
A favorite British character actor of mine turns up as a charismatic French aesthete, oenophile, and double agent and I'm still mad at myself for not recognizing him. The whole time he was on screen I kept saying to myself, I know that guy! I know that guy! Turns out I did know that guy. Titus Welliver has a funny and uncredited cameo, and him I recognized.
Mary-Louise Parker was more believable when her character was more believable. In Red, Sarah started out as an average cubicle worker daydreaming about the sort of romantic adventure Frank gets her caught up in who then can't get her head around the twin facts that of course among the retired government workers she helped sort out pension problems there'd be a former CIA agent or two and that her daydreams had become real.
That normalcy and disbelief defined Sarah, but she's cured of both at the beginning of Red 2. Trouble is there isn't much else left of her. Parker tries to make up for the deficit with an excess on cuteness.
Willis' job in Red was to surprise Sarah and the bad guys with the fact that he was Bruce Willis and to be the one who kept his---and our focus---on the seriousness of the trouble Frank and Sarah were in while the eccentrics around him eccentrified. He was helped in this by Morgan Freeman and Karl Urban.
But as I mentioned Freeman and Urban are gone, McDonough's playing a comic book character, the trouble isn't serious because it's too outrageous, and Frank is too distracted by his domestic problems to focus anyway. Without Willis and Parker centering things, the plot seems to run away with itself, getting more and more out of control as it barrels along. To make matters worse, instead of playing straight man to the eccentrics, this time out Willis joins them in Eccentricville.
Willis does many things well as an actor, but eccentrifying isn't one of them. Here he doesn't come off as eccentric as much as just plain goofy.
It might have been funnier if instead of reaching for laughs by making Frank less of the super-spook he was in Red, Parisot and his screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber had taken advantage of the opportunities they'd provided themselves with in the forms of those ghosts from his past, Lee and Zeta-Jones, to show us, and Sarah, that Frank is an even more super super-spook than we thought, a real Matt Helm or Derek Flint.
Developed, this might have given Red 2 a story as well as a plot. As it is, it's only hinted at in the form of a few throwaway jokes.
But if Willis can't keep pace with the lunacy around him, Mirren and Malkovich are well ahead of it. Victoria and Marvin are the heroes of Red 2 and you can have a worse time at the movies than watching Helen Mirren and John Malkovich deadpan their unique ways through their characters' craziness.
It's a stretch, but not as much of one as you'd think, but you can see Despicable Me 2 as a companion piece to Red. That's Red, not Red 2.
In both you have a bald, middle-aged retired action-adventure hero trying to live a normal life in the suburbs who gets dragged back into a world of mystery, danger, and suspense by the uninvited and unwelcome appearance of ghosts from his exciting past.
The difference is that, unlike Frank, Gru isn't bored or alienated. He's quite happy, in fact. He has a new line of work, making jams and jellies in the underground laboratory and factory where he used to build the weapons and devices for his evil schemes. He fits in and gets along well with his neighbors---Most of them, at any rate.---and they like him. The mothers in the neighborhood, particularly, look out for him. They see Gru as a normal single dad doing an admirable job of raising his three adopted daughters on his own. And that's just it. Frank is lonely. Gru has Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They adore him, he adores them and would do anything for them, including, if the situation is desperate enough, dressing up as a fairy princess now and then.
But then those ghosts come calling. Gru, as reluctantly as Frank, although reluctant for very different reasons, gets back into the game and puts the old skills to work to save the day.
And that's about as far as the Red-Despicable Me 2 parallels go, because...
The temptation for makers of sequels, especially for makers of sequels to movies that didn't really need sequels, is to deliver more of the same with emphasis.
If something worked once in the original, then you can count on it being tried twice in the sequel. Or three times. Or four. Or four dozen. (See above.) As you might expect, in Despicable Me 2 that means more minions.
Now, as a fan of the minions, I might have been inclined to feel you can't have too many minions. But directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud don't test that. They give us more but in a way that feels like less. Not less as in not enough. Less as in always leave 'em wanting more.
The minions get more scenes and more to do. There's more minion slapstick. More minion singing and dancing. More minion involvement in the plot. But we see them more on their own terms. They have lives, you know.
Freed from having to spend their workdays in the underground lab---it doesn't take as many minions to make jams and jellies as to build shrink rays and rocket ships--- Gru's core group of minions, Dave, Stuart, Lance, Jerry, Carl, and Kevin, have assigned themselves key jobs in the running of the Gru household and are, generally, handling things so well that Gru has learned to take them and their efforts for granted. In fact it's not until the WiFi goes out and Kevin doesn't come running to fix it that Gru starts to suspect there's trouble brewing at home, although his first thought is that Kevin has taken another vacation day without putting in for it.
But because Gru takes the minions for granted, we do too. They don't exactly sneak into scenes. It's more the case that their being there is such a given that it takes a minute to remember that three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen aren't a part of every normal suburban family.
There's another temptation for sequel makers, the temptation to undo the happy ending of the original in order to redo it in a slightly different but still safely familiar way, and this one Despicable Me 2 avoids completely.
Gru doesn't fall back into his evil ways. He's truly reformed, a really good good guy. The girls aren't taken from him, so he doesn't have to prove his worthiness as a loving and loveable father all over again. The moon doesn't need to be stolen again. Vector, thankfully, doesn't return as the villain.
Despicable Me 2 quietly picks up Gru where Despicable Me left him, cheerfully and contentedly at home, a devoted family man with three loving daughters, the foundations of a full and happy life safely laid, lacking for nothing except---
No, not adventure.
Enter Lucy Wilde, an overly enthusiastic rookie agent for the Anti-Villain League who arrives to forcibly recruit Gru in an effort to track down and thwart a mysterious new supervillain whose evil scheme will eventually involve cupcakes, chickens, a threat to the minions, and a lot of purple.
Lucy is voiced by Kristen Wiig but that hardly matters any more than it matters that it’s Steve Carell doing the voice of Gru. Like Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 is very close to being a silent movie. Not that it is very close to being silent. But it could be and we’d still get it. Almost all its humor is visual and much of its exposition is delivered visually too. Lucy looks and moves funny, but what she really brings to the story, which Despicable Me lacked, besides a grown-up female lead, is a visual complement to Gru.
I like the style of both the original and the sequel. They don’t look any other CGI cartoons. I can’t identify all their influences, but Gru is clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and in Despicable Me he was alone in that. But Lucy could be one of Gorey’s ballerinas, slender, apparently boneless, liquidy, but cheerful and always in motion instead of at rest. Actually, she never rests. And in her company Gru never rests either. He becomes graceful. I should say, more graceful. Together they’re paired in a continual slapstick tango.
If you saw and enjoyed Red, you’ll probably get a kick out of Red 2, but you also probably won’t enjoy it as much. If you haven’t seen Red, I recommend giving Red 2 the skip and seeing Red soon.
But I don’t think you need to have seen Despicable Me first in order to enjoy Despicable Me 2, although it’s probably better if you did. But coming out of the theater, I had the feeling that I liked Despicable Me 2 more than the original. Not a lot more. But more. I’m not sure why. It may have been that all the sentimentality of Gru’s reformation and adoptive fatherhood was gotten out of the way. It may have been that I was just glad Vector wasn’t back. He was a truly annoying villain. It may have been that Lucy really was exactly what was needed to complete things. It may have been that Gru makes an even better hero than he did a villain.
It may have been the tortilla chip hats.
It may have been that it was simply a better made movie all around.
Who am I kidding?
I know what it was.
Red 2, directed by Dean Parisot, screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber. Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Byung-hu Lee, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough, and Anthony Hopkins. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13. Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, screenplay by Ken Dorio and Cinco Paul. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, and Kristen Schaal. 98 minutes. Rated PG. Both movies now in theaters.
Really nice story from yesterday’s Morning Edition:
Then it all fell apart during and after Algeria's war of independence from France. The Jewish musicians, considered French citizens, fled to that country. After independence in 1962, the government forcibly relocated many Muslim neighborhoods.
Some of the musicians went on to professional careers. Some played only for themselves. Others stopped performing music altogether — especially during the 1990s, when Algeria was racked by a civil war between the government and Islamist groups and playing music became a dangerous profession.
Forty years later, a young woman of Algerian descent living in Ireland decided to visit Algiers on vacation. Safinez Bousbia was wandering through the souk — the bazaar — where she met an artisan who made and decorated mirrors. She decided to buy one as a souvenir of her trip.
"I was complimenting the mirror that I was going to buy, and I was like, 'Oh, it's so beautiful, it's hand-painted and stuff,'" she says. "And I said, 'Oh, you're such an artist.' And he goes, 'Of course I am! But I'm not only an artist here, I'm also an artist in music.' And I'm like, 'Really?' And he goes, 'Wait a second.' And he pulled out all of this memorabilia of his years as a musician.
"And then I start asking him again about the mirror," she says. "And he says, "Tsk! Leave the mirror! Let's talk about this now!' So it was quite hilarious."
The mirror maker's name is Mohamed Ferkioui. He plays the accordion and piano. And, as his story unspooled, Bousbia got a crazy idea. She didn't know anything about music; she was 23. She was supposed to finish her master's degree in architecture back in Ireland after this vacation. But she canceled her flight and decided to track down all of the surviving chaabi players.
She was going to get the band back together.
Listen to or read Anastasia Tsioulcas’ whole story, Reunited After 50 Years, An Algerian Buena Vista Social Club Makes Its U.S. Debut, at NPR.
You can download two of the band’s albums, El Gusto and Abdel Hadi Halo & The El Gusto Orchestra Of Algiers at Amazon.
Photo of El Gusto oud player Rachid Berkani courtesy of the musicians via Morning Edition.